Robert Bossio is currently working on his Ph.D. in analytical chemistry/high resolution-high mass accuracy mass spectrometry at Florida State University under Alan Marshall at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. He holds bachelor's and master's degrees in chemistry from the University of Kentucky and the University of Michigan, Dearborn, respectively. During his time at Michigan, Bossio was both a student and lab assistant to the department of natural sciences, where he learned the essential requirements of setting up a laboratory.

As an undergraduate, I got the opportunity to work for the chemistry dispensary in my home department, the department of natural sciences at University of Michigan, Dearborn. Working there taught me a great deal about how to set up, maintain, and run a lab. Not only were we in charge of dispensing chemicals and glassware, but my supervisor--Linda Grimm--made certain that we understood our work environment well. Everything from safety to proper storage and disposal of chemicals was a part of our job in the stockroom, and I'd like to share my experiences with you.

Proper Storage of Chemicals

Chemicals have their own specific storage needs. These are given on material safety data sheets--or MSDSs. Although there are specific directions for storing chemicals properly, a little common sense and knowledge of chemistry is important.

Here are some "common sense" no-nos of storage:

  • Acids and bases: If these are stored in the same cabinet, the volatile acid gases react and form dust films on surfaces--especially if one of the bases being stored is ammonia. For instance, if you were to store ammonia and nitric acid in the same cabinet, ammonium nitrate dust would form over everything in the cabinet. Ammonium nitrate is a high explosive [when mixed with flammable or easily oxidized substances]--it was used to bomb the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City 5 years ago. Dusts can also act as explosives (some of you may have heard of grain elevators exploding). Store acids and bases far away from each other.

  • Fuels and oxidizers: These are a bit trickier to identify, but consider most, if not all, organic liquids and solids to be potential fuels for a fire. Store organics away from oxidizing gases (halogens, oxygen gas), oxidizing liquids (hydrogen peroxide solutions, organic peroxides, nitric and sulfuric acids), and oxidizing solids (nitrate, perchlorate, transition metal salts, permanganates, molybdates, tungstates, and chromates are a few examples).

  • Water-sensitive materials under/near sinks: Yes, I've seen this happen in labs; I've seen bottles of alkali metals stored under sinks. Fortunately, while nothing happened to them, the potential for serious harm or an explosion was there, and accidents do happen. If the bottle says moisture-sensitive, store it away from the sinks. Water-sensitive materials should be stored in cool, dry places or dessicators with a good seal on the lid to prevent them from getting ruined. Science is only going to get more expensive, there's no need to waste money on buying materials and reagents again because of negligent care.

  • Shock-, light-, or heat-sensitive materials: Sodium azide--a common preservative in some buffers--comes to mind; it is sensitive to all three. Sodium azide is/was the active ingredient in car emergency air bags--so the explosion potential is certainly present. Store such reagents and other heat-, light-, and shock-sensitive materials in cool, dry, dark places.

  • Proper Disposal of Chemicals

    When setting up a lab, immediately designate a waste disposal/storage area according to your department's guidelines. Make sure your lab members follow rules for dealing with waste and those of the department. If you start the habits of good chemical and biological hygiene in your lab, you will find that cleaning up the lab goes much smoother when health and safety officers arrive for inspection, giving you more time to devote to doing science rather than cleaning it up!

    Everything has its place when you're done with it and "that place" is the appropriate waste disposal container. Although it seems like your local department or safety office is being picky, you can save your lab several thousand dollars by disposing of waste properly. Here are some useful tips for disposing of waste.

  • Don't put anything that you would want in the environment down the drain. Yes, it will come back to haunt you. Organic liquids, radioactive materials, halogenated liquids (chloroform, for example), and certain metal salts are all things that shouldn't be introduced into the environment. If you aren't sure about a solution that you have to dispose of, ASK! There are plenty of people in the know in your department that can help you out. Keep asking until you find an answer that complies with your local disposal regulations.

  • Broken glass and sharp objects should be disposed of in an appropriate container. Many people treat these as garbage containers, but they're not. Don't use them as such.

  • Don't mix waste. Many times someone will just dump something into a container that is labeled waste and not give it a second thought. If you put a radioactive waste inside a waste container labeled for halogenated organics, you've now increased the price of disposing of that waste many fold, because now it is radioactive AND halogenated.

  • Dispose of waste in the proper containers. You would think that any old storage bottle would do the job. But there are specific containers for specific wastes. For instance, sodium fluoride and hydrofluoric acid should not be disposed of in glass containers, they are highly corrosive to glass and will eat through it leaving you with quite a mess. Use common sense when disposing of waste. If you don't have any, ASK, and get some sense!

  • One final issue with setting up a lab is a chemical/material inventory. Setting one of these up takes about a day. You should know:

    • What chemicals you have

    • When they were brought into the lab

    • Where they are stored

    • When they are used up

    Overview

    • Store acids and bases far away from each other.

    • Store organics away from oxidizing gases, liquids, and solids.

    • Store water-sensitive materials in cool, dry places or in dessicators.

    • Keep shock-, light-, or heat-sensitive materials in cool, dry, dark places.

    • Don't put anything that you wouldn't want in the environment down the drain.

    • Use the appropriate containers to dispose of broken glass and sharp objects.

    • Use the proper containers: Some waste chemicals corrode glass or plastics.

    • Don't mix waste.

    • Make an inventory of your chemicals and stocks and put it on a spreadsheet.

    • MAINTAIN these practices!

    Put all this info into a spreadsheet, and update it every time a new chemical comes into your lab or when a chemical is used up. Review the inventory regularly, depending on the traffic of chemicals in your lab. We set up one of these spreadsheet chemical databases in my current lab, and instead of hearing "Where's chemical X?" we hear "Ah, it's not in the database, lets order some more." This has saved us a lot of money by not ordering things we already have and also gives us some lead-time in knowing when to order something new. This device works well if the spreadsheet is maintained, but that is the key. Make sure a student or postdoc is assigned to maintain the database. It may take up some of that person's time, but it will increase the productivity of the lab as a whole. And it sure beats discovering you ran out of buffer salts just when your new protein came in!

    So there's my advice for setting up a lab. Store things in the right places to avoid costly and damaging setbacks to your work. Dispose of waste according to the guidelines of your institution--it will cut down on costs and potential disasters later on. Make a chemical inventory so that you can quickly find what's where and if you have any in the first place. And finally, MAINTAIN these practices! The minor hassle of maintenance is far cheaper than costly repair bills.